Vogue has asked me to put down my thoughts on the subject of entertaining internationally. This is truly a complex subject; for any form of international gathering is bound at some stage or another to reflect the world situation, and the world situation, as everybody knows, is as murky and difficult to fathom as Black Bean soup.
However, a hostess surveying present-day affairs through the eyes of a French chef, and in terms of cream at 400 francs a litre and butter at 700 francs a kilo, can hardly be expected to take the same view of things as say, Mr Lippman, or Mr Bevin, or even Monsieur Corbin, a former Ambassador to London and a gourmet of great distinction.
The Aga Khan once observed, during a solemn discussion of international dinner politics, “Men are all crazy, but women are crazier.” And exercising a woman’s rights, I am moved to suggest that our heavy thinkers may be making a great mistake in assuming that the atomic bomb is as obsessively all-important to the Russians as they would have us believe. Man cannot live by fissionable material alone. Pre-Soviet Russia was, among other estimable things, the birthplace of Filet Stroganoff and Faisan Souvaroff. To assume that these exasperating people have wholly lost their appetite for the good things in life is to rule out the infinite possibilities of redemption in human nature.
We are told that the Russians have been working feverishly to produce an atomic bomb which will be ready by 1952, and thereafter our civilisation will be in peril. But the fact that some Russians are concentrating upon this unpleasant task may be only part of the story. Suppose that it should presently turn out that other Russians were working with equal fanaticism and secret to produce a fine Sauce Gribiche to break the French monopoly? And suppose the sauce should be sprung on the world first, in 1951?
The French provide a heartening example of how a boisterously revolutionary society can be tranquillised by a taste for good living. French sauces, which must surely be included among the most satisfying contributions to international comity, are manifestly the products of centuries. And in the process of perfecting them, the French, who had their difficult side, have become in many respects the most agreeable people on earth.
At the moment, the Russians appears to be claiming credit for practically every mechanical invention since the beginning of time. If they should follow up their present orgy of chest-thumping with the claim to have eaten the first oyster, opened the first egg, made the first soufflé, and invented the napkin, a new era of understanding may be in prospect.
Now, this is not to suggest that the explosive history of our times will necessarily be settled at the dinner table, but only that a truly elegant dinner table – one of the finest flowerings of the good society – is quite impossible without history. Meanwhile, any light-hearted pontificating on the subject of international entertaining is, as the saying goes, fraught with hazard. One fact, however, is self-evident; here, as in so many other things reflecting the world shift in power and wealth, the honours have fallen to the Americans. The world now sits at the American’s table. The Marshall Plan continues right through dessert.
It is possible that my ideas might strike an up-and-coming hostess of the pre-cooked Bird’s Eye school as a trifle fussy. However, there is, as the French say, a proper way of ordering these matters. I therefore offer these few random suggestions with diffidence.
The most exciting realm open to any hostess is politics. But the fact that my husband, as a member of the British Royal Family, is expected to eschew politics, though possessing decidedly strong views on practically every subject, excludes us from this field. And I myself have never made a point of building dinners around celebrities of the hour. Few economists can tell a faisan from a pintade: and the present generation of bright, young global thinkers, who were weaned on the box lunches served by transoceanic airliners, are lost to the subtleties of a menu.
More than eight persons means no soufflé – always a melancholy omission – and over 12 condemns the staff to two servings. Personally, I consider 10 the ideal number for dinner. Ten ensures a buried and contrasting company, yet one that can be seated around a table in sufficiently close proximity for general conversation. Eight, 12, 16 are awkward numbers, if one has the usual rectangular table. To avoid this embarrassing situation, the Duke and I will sometimes move to the middle of the table, facing each other but one place off.
The long rectangular table puts the hostess at a further disadvantage, in that at a large party her power to steer and revive the conversation disappears. Every experienced hostess is familiar with the spectacle of a guest who, during the turns of conversations, manages to get left out at one point or another, and is to be seen gazing wildly into space with the stricken expression of a castaway, while her partners on either side chat vivaciously with other guests.
It takes resolute emergency action by a hostess to restore to the company an unfortunate guest who has been lost in this manner. I recommend a lightning shift in the conversation to a controversial subject, followed by a preemptory question directed at Mme X in a voice loud enough to cut across the hum of conversation. “Mme X, Mr Gildersleeve has just been giving me his views on the state of American business. Don’t you find him too, too pessimistic?” The fact that Mme X may have no interest in, or knowledge of, the condition of the US economy is immaterial. The immediate need is to restore her to the world of the living, and to summon her delinquent partner to his duty.
A good rule to follow at dinners is to alternate partners with each course. But one should not be too obvious about it. It is disconcerting suddenly to find a grimacing countenance turning in your direction, its robot-like action saying, in effect, “Here is the fish, and here am I!”
It is seldom necessary to make serious concessions in the menu, even for the most cosmopolitan gathering. In general it will be found that Americans eat less than Frenchmen and Britons; the French make a rite of the second helping, the British are accustomed to winding up a meal with savoury and port. Otherwise, good company, good food, good manners, and good intentions supply the hostess’s every need.
The idea that everything can be left to a good chef is one of life’s most dangerous illusions. All French chefs harbour a secret ambition to deluge the world with sauces of their own concoction; their inhibitions find release in a violent outpouring of sauces. Leave a French chef to cope with dinner alone, and the result will be a succession of masterpieces entirely obliterated under snowfields of various hues.Most Popular
Again, chefs are curiously colour-blind. Leave them to their own devices, and you may end up with an all-rose dinner – Crème Portugaise, Saumon Poché with Sauce Cardinal, Jambon with Sauce Hongroise, and Bombe Marie-Louise. Whenever I have a fair-sized dinner, I summon the chef three or four days in advance, and discuss my problem with him. He will usually produce two or three experimental menus, and I always have at least one of my own, for purposes of argument. The final menu will represent a combination of the chef’s ideas and mine.
Some system is essential. I keep a record of all my dinners – the guest lists, the menu itself, the seating arrangements, the table decor, which china and which silver were used. Anybody who entertains a lot runs the risk of falling into a rut. One inevitably forms attachment for certain menus and for certain combinations of friends. The hostess who relies upon memory alone may find herself repeating to friends precisely the same dinner she provided six months before.
Europeans dine much later than Americans – just why, I have never understood, unless it is through habit they take to the night better than we do. However, the custom appears to have practical physiological justification. By 8:45pm the stomachs of most European statesmen are usually ready to receive food, bankers and industrialists are as mellow as they are ever likely to be, and women over 40 begin to look their best.
I observe, also, an interesting change in the habits of wine-drinkers. Americans especially are drinking more wine – it gives support to a meal. But there is a noticeable turning away from the European custom of a different wine with every course. The French traditionalists, to be sure, are still standing fast in what corresponds to a vinous Maginot Line. A dinner given in a French house today will confront an American with an array of wine glasses as dazzling in its complexity as the instrument compartment of the latest airplane. If I had my way, I would serve only a single wine throughout dinner – an Alsatian wine. And the British are content to drink nothing but champagne – their one release, no doubt, from austerity.
There is one European custom which American hostesses would be well advised to stop at the water’s edge – the male custom, observed most determinedly by Britons, of remaining behind in the dining room for coffee, brandy, cigars, and talk. There, in unbuttoned ease, with the brandy bottle passing cheerfully from hand to hand, the talk flowing, time passing unnoticed, the host and his companions swiftly achieve the illusion of complete absolvement from the social duties awaiting them, in the aspect of neglected wives and other female guests, behind the doors of the drawing room.
Seldom will a discouraged or defeated man ever issue from the dining room after 11pm. But I have observed that the world problems that are so cheerfully resolved in there before midnight are practically always lost in the conference room before noon the next day. No other practice, in my opinion, has been more responsible than this one for the never-ending war between the sexes.
My final observation is this: planning a party can be more fun than the party itself. And one rule is born into my brain: Don’t worry. It never happens.